Blame game the enemy of good policy when disaster strikes

The earthquake at l'Aquila was a tragedy, but blaming experts and governments doesn’t help. EPA/Grillo

The decision of an Italian Court to convict six scientists and one government official of manslaughter for the failure to predict the magnitude of a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila in central Italy in 2009 should have alarm bells ringing for all those involved in disaster management. This does not just mean scientists, it includes policy makers and practitioners at all levels of government and those who provide scientific, engineering and technical advice to them.

As a former Director-General of the Queensland Department of Community Safety, I can say the planning and preparation for disaster events is heavily dependent on the formal and informal advice from these experts. During the 2010-11 flooding and cyclones, the State Disaster Management Group and indeed cabinet were regularly briefed by experts from the Bureau of Meteorology and hydrologists in order to assist planning and response activities.

Natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, flash flooding and tsunamis are usually unpredicted and unpredictable, particularly if there is some community expectation that there can be some precise identification of the location, timing and magnitude of each event. This level of specificity is scientifically impossible.

To hold engineers accountable in this way is akin to blaming the weather bureau for the storm or drought. Perhaps worse, it reflects a societal trend where someone or some agency must be to blame if loss of life or property, economic and environmental damage ensues.

The identification of four dam operators for possible criminal sanctions by the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry reflects this trend involving the need to find “someone to blame”. Fortunately the Crime and Misconduct Commission has determined that there is insufficient evidence for any prosecution. But the impact on those individuals is ongoing; their personal and professional reputations have been significantly damaged.

The Queensland floods and cyclones of 2010-11 cost the state $7.5 billion. AAP/Raymond Keyworth

Clearly there are some disasters such as oil spills or biosecurity breaches where this litigious approach can be appropriate. But to apply the “blame culture” to natural disasters will have profound implications for disaster management where the focus must be on understanding the risks and preparing for and mitigating those risks. That is a shared responsibility for governments, business, the community and individuals.

If the Italian experience is replicated here or even if it creates some level of unease in the scientific community which discourages their involvement, the preparation and planning for future natural disasters will be compromised with potentially more adverse consequences for the community.

Rather than focus on blame, we need a public debate on improving our disaster management policy and practice. There is a serious gap in disaster management policy in Australia. What is needed is integrated frameworks focused on all hazards and building resilience. This involves developing effective, practical strategies to limit the impact of disasters. There must be effective integration of policy and programs across the prevention, preparedness, response and recovery phases of disaster management. Each phase should provide feedback loops to improve performance, policy development and resourcing priorities.

The allocation of resources through the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA) has grown exponentially in response to disasters from about $40 million in 2003-04 to about $1.9 billion in 2010-11. The estimated costs of the 2010-11 flooding and cyclones are estimated to be in excess of $7.5 billion.

But both the commitment to and investment in prevention and mitigation have been miserly in comparison. The policy imbalance is staggering when one considers that in the year in which $7.5 billion was the estimated cost of natural disasters, Queensland’s allocation of NDRP funds for disaster mitigation was about $9 million.

The challenge to our national, state and territory leaders is to support the aspiration of building resilience through policy changes and resourcing priorities. Local communities and individuals need assistance to reduce their exposure to natural disasters by investment in mitigation and adaptation initiatives.

The imperative for all those involved in emergency and disaster management - agencies at all levels of government, businesses, individuals and communities is to move beyond the traditional emphasis on response and recovery towards building resilience.

In times of budgetary restraint, it is easy to see why governments may be reluctant to spend money in advance to prepare against “known unknowns”, but this is exactly what is needed to turn around the imbalance between funds given after a disasters and money spent before such disasters occur. As with so many of the issues that face Australian governance, is time for a full and frank public debate.